Observing M. Night Shyamalan’s career over the past 16 years has been akin to watching a once-bountiful balloon leak air at a steady pace. His breakthrough film, The Sixth Sense, was an exceedingly well-crafted piece of work, skillfully written, directed and acted across the board. His follow-up, Unbreakable, perhaps lacked a small amount of that same craftsmanship, but still stood as a sterling effort. But then Shyamalan cranked out a progressively inferior assemblage of films, from the uneven Signs to the inert The Village to the risible Lady in the Water. By the time he unleashed the disastrous The Happening upon the moviegoing populace, it was curtains for any cachet he once enjoyed. An M. Night Shyamalan film was no longer a tantalizing event brimming with cinematic promise. His very name had become a warning label, a helpful alert for prospective buyers of an inferior product.
After a couple of swings-and-misses at big-budget summer fare, with the twin failures of The Last Airbender and After Earth, Shyamalan returns to his horror roots with The Visit, a microbudget found-footage film released by the ubiquitous horror assembly line Blumhouse Productions. The film centers on the Jamison siblings, sullen amateur filmmaker Becca (Olivia De Jonge) and her extroverted younger brother, burgeoning lothario and freestyle rapper Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), who live with their harried mother Paula (Kathryn Hahn in a light-lifting bit part). The kids seek out their grandparents on the Internet, whom they have never met due to their mother’s 15-year estrangement from her parents after an event from her youth that she refuses to talk about. The kids set up a weeklong visit, which Paula grudgingly agrees to given that it will afford her the opportunity for some much-needed R&R on a cruise with a new beau. Becca and Tyler kiss mom goodbye, board a train and are off, with Becca filming everything for a documentary she’s making about the experience of finally meeting her elders.
Nana and Pop-Pop (Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie) greet the kids upon arrival and seem warm and congenial at first blush. Once the kids are settled in at the grandparents’ house, Pop-Pop cheerfully advises them that, because he and Nana are old folk, bedtime is at 9:00 and that the kids should probably not wander out of their rooms after 9:30. Kids being kids, they don’t heed this guideline and a cookie-seeking Becca witnesses Nana projectile vomiting all over the floor downstairs. The kids encounter a mounting stream of odd events each night, and even into the day, with Nana scratching at the walls in the nude, scuttling around the floor like an animal and cackling at the wall. Pop-Pop explains away everything as the result of “sundowning,” where the setting sun affects the mental state of the elderly. However, he too begins exhibiting peculiar behavior, storing used adult diapers in the barn, placing the business end of a shotgun in his mouth and assaulting an innocent passerby on the street. As their grandparents’ oddness continues to escalate, Becca and Tyler have to discern where run-of-the-mill elderly dementia ends and life-threatening danger begins.
The Visit is an odd fit within Shyamalan’s oeuvre. The stripped-down, overly familiar found-footage aesthetic is at odds with the much more classically polished films he has delivered up to this point. Shyamalan has always held himself as an intricate storyteller and The Visit is more of a simplistic cheap-thrills offering. But beyond just the stylistic incongruity with his previous work, The Visit is also a strikingly odd blend of comedy and horror. With The Happening, the director crafted a straight-faced thriller with seemingly zero awareness of how unintentionally hilarious everything transpiring onscreen was coming across. Here, Shyamalan is acutely aware of the presence of comedy and recognizes the absurdity inherent in his premise, which he consciously mines for queasy laughs. The Visit frequently functions as a sick-joke black comedy, in line with something like 1989’s Parents as much as it is with its more obvious modern antecedents, like Paranormal Activity. Shyamalan isn’t even afraid to go for a truly lowbrow gag, as when the contents of a diaper are shoved into a child’s face, something that wouldn’t seem out of place in an American Pie-style gross-out comedy.
But here’s the most peculiar thing: The Visit kind of works on both of its divergent levels. It is unnerving and unsettling while also being frequently very funny, on purpose. It often accomplishes both feats simultaneously, as when Nana fixes Tyler with a death glare after catching him gleefully mocking her late-night hallway traipsing, or during a deeply uncomfortable game of Yahtzee. The film walks the tightrope between the two settings fairly adroitly, conscious of the horror inherent to witnessing one’s relatives (and, in this case, children’s sole guardians) behaving irrationally, while also not turning a blind eye to the fact that old people doing zany things is something destined to come across as goofy. The Visit somehow manages to function as both an effective horror movie and a workable black comedy, in equal measure.
However, this is not to say that The Visit is an unqualified success. For starters, the film seems to confuse the actions of those with late-stage dementia with those possessed by the demon Pazuzu, and one would think Paula, despite all the years of silence, might want to at least touch base with her parents before shipping her kids off to them for a week. More pertinently, as a found-footage film, it reaps the benefits of the subgenre’s strengths – primarily the dropping of the cinematic veneer that creates a buffer between the viewer and the events onscreen – while also falling victim to many of its clumsier tropes. There are plenty of jump scares and figures suddenly appearing in the frame when the camera quickly pans to the side. There is also the requisite lack of logic as to why imperiled camera operators continue to film while immersed in dangerous situations.
Moreover, there are the usual horror-movie bugs in the machine, in terms of idiotic character actions. The Jamison kids will witness something wholly disturbing one night and then subsequently be shown eating breakfast with Nana and Pop-Pop the next morning, absent the concern they should clearly be feeling. There are so many points when it’s clear that the kids desperately need to alert the authorities or make a break for the nearest neighboring home, but that point never comes. Even when they finally realize that they need to keep their distance from the grandparents, Becca continues to return to the house to conduct her one-on-one interviews with them for her film. And then, at a crucial moment, Becca makes the baffling choice to explore the house’s dark basement alone. Almost 20 years after Scream, horror-movie protagonists are still making the same bonehead decisions.
The Visit sees Shyamalan again embrace his fondness for the big twist, as what’s going on with Nana and Pop-Pop is not as straightforward as it initially seems. Shyamalan has gotten saddled with the label of “the twist guy” ever since The Sixth Sense, but in truth, The Village is the only other film in his catalogue that tried to melt your brain. The Visit even starts to tease out a supernatural element after a point, as when Pop-Pop starts babbling about an entity with yellow eyes and Nana brings up aliens, and it isn’t initially clear if these are yet more incoherent ravings or key pieces of information. But after the resolution of the film’s climax, there’s a lingering feeling of “is that it?” Shyamalan seems to think that the big takeaway should be a coda where the characters learn that long-standing resentment between family members should not be left to fester for so long, but tacking this life lesson onto a horror movie about crazy old people trying to kill you feels like a transplanted organ that the host body rejects.
Still, all told, The Visit is Shyamalan’s strongest film in many, many years. It might not result in a reversal of his misfortunes, as it represents a perfect storm of things audiences have come to reject out of hand, namely M. Night Shyamalan films, found-footage films and comedy-horror hybrids. However, it does represent a promising course-correction for him as a filmmaker. After he exploded into the limelight, Shyamalan was heralded by many as the next Spielberg or the next Hitchcock, and his subsequent work is that of a man who clearly allowed that acclaim to go right to his head, to the point where he could no longer recognize bad ideas because geniuses don’t have those. The Visit stands as a necessary humbling for Shyamalan, a quick-and-dirty affair bereft of any and all loftier intentions. Humility, as it happens, is a good look on him.
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